1

I was wondering if it was acceptable to make a sentence less choppy by using “that” without a comma to introduce a clause that could be introduced with a comma followed by “which,” because the sentence would still be grammatically correct without the clause.

For instance, if the nonrestrictive clause in sentence (1) was removed, the sentence would still be grammatically correct, even though it would then be less instructive. However, (2) flows better than (1) because that clause is written as if it were nonrestrictive.

(1) The painting depicts a priest drowning the girl in a lake, which the avowedly anti-Christian artist may have used ambiguously to represent water’s ability to free the soul by killing the person.

(2) The scene depicts a priest drowning a girl in a lake that the avowedly anti-Christian artist may have used ambiguously to represent water’s ability to free the soul by killing the person.

Thanks very much for clarifying this issue for me, even though I may not have phrased my question in the best way possible.

  • OT: the picture might not be of a priest "drowning" a girl but baptising her (which is sometimes done by complete immersion in water) and the picture misrepresented as a drowning. – Weather Vane Jul 19 '19 at 11:05
  • No. All you will do is confuse the reader. – KarlG Jul 19 '19 at 11:11
  • 2
    'which' refers to the act contained in the phrase 'a priest drowning the girl in the lake'. By using 'that' you are shifting the emphasis onto 'lake', maybe even a specific lake that was used for this purpose. – Mynamite Jul 19 '19 at 11:44
  • "However, (2) flows better than (1) because that clause is written as if it were nonrestrictive. " It's not clear to me what you're referring to when you say "that clause" or what you mean when you say "as if it were." The which clause in (1) is nonrestrictive and the that clause in (2) is restrictive. – Jason Bassford Jul 19 '19 at 19:56
2

Non-restrictive relative clauses -- the kind that take comma intonation and use which -- are not grammatical with that. If you omit the comma intonation and use that, it's no longer a non-restrictive relative clause, but rather a restrictive relative clause, which has different syntax, and the different function of defining the noun it modifies, instead of giving extra information about its coreferent.

In the case of the two example sentences, (1) has several senses that (2) lacks. For instance, in (2) the restrictive relative clause with that must modify the noun phrase a lake.

However, in (1) the non-restrictive relative clause with that could refer to the noun phrase a lake, or to the whole clause a priest drowning the girl in a lake, or even to the resultant proposition that the girl drowned in a lake. These senses are not available with (2), but they change the interpretation of the rest of (1).

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.